Leadership

You’ve stuffed up, now what? Why the power of a genuine apology can move mountains

Sue Parker /

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DARE Group Australia founder Sue Parker. Source: Supplied.

Righto, you have stuffed up, made a mistake, been negligent, caused damage, breached trust, misjudged, spent unwisely or behaved like a jackass. And let’s be upfront here, we have all stuffed up and will do so again in many different ways. After all, we are not robots and mistakes are part of life and the human condition. 

But what we do afterwards will be significant on many levels. Whether the stuff up was tiny or enormous, consequences are a given. And those consequences can flow across the commercial and financial sides of business, notwithstanding the impact on relationships, mental wellbeing and reputation. And then there are the stuff-ups that impact us personally. But more on that later.

For clarity, I’m reflecting in this article on the commonplace (but still harmful) mistakes that are made in our lives and businesses — as opposed to those of the monumental, historical, government, institutional and or royal commission kind.

So, given that humans make mistakes, be they intentional or inadvertent, why is admitting and apologising with remorse often akin to pulling a decayed tooth from a tiger? What prevents people stepping out to take responsibility and remedy? Mistakes that are not addressed can be set in stone causing ongoing commercial and human damage.
In his landmark ‘sorry’ address to the LGBTI+ community in the Victorian Parliament in May 2016, Premier Daniel Andrews drew the breath of all Australia when he passionately declared:

“It’s never too late to put things right. It’s never too late to say sorry and mean it.”

I quote Premier Andrews’ speech as it’s a hallmark of a truly meaningful apology. It had the right motivations, contained deep contrition, context, and awareness of impact, a way forward, and a promise for change and action together with a commitment to not allow mistreatment to happen again. It serves as a great reference point, irrelevant of circumstances.

Why it can be hard to apologise  

So why do so many people struggle with admitting their mistakes, electing instead to play the ostrich-head-in-the-sand game? Often masquerading behind stiff facades and a determination to shift blame (often onto the hurt party), and to save ego and skin, it’s a dangerous place to sit long term.

Owning and admitting mistakes of any kind can feel like a loss of power and a declaration of weakness. This is a phoney fear in reality as taking responsibility and apologising takes great courage and strength. 

Studies also show entrenched non-apologists grapple with deeper psychological conflict around apologising as it elicits fundamental shameful feelings (either conscious or unconscious) they desperately want to avoid.  

Why it’s important 

A genuine apology can shift mountains of despair, alleviate hurt, elevate self-esteem and purpose, encourage honesty, build partnerships, foster trust and most importantly allow situations and relationships to really repair, grow and succeed.

An apology:

  • Is simply the right and decent thing to do;
  • Works to repair and re-establish relationships and trust;
  • Helps restores dignity and wellbeing to the other party who has been hurt;
  • Minimises conflict and gives the space for business creativity;
  • Strengthens self-respect and values which impact our personal brands; and
  • Minimises feelings of deep remorse that can impact you physically and emotionally. 

Elements of a genuine apology 

Sincere apologies should not be given in the expectation of forgiveness. Sure, it is an ideal by-product, but other people’s response is their responsibility. It’s about righting a wrong and contrition.

A genuine apology centres on the intention after reflection of the impact. If you cannot be genuine, then reflect on why not, and don’t say the words yet. Because I promise you that feelings and thoughts are equally as powerful and loud as words and actions.

Think of a time when a friend or colleague was in distress, and when trying to help, you were met with an ‘I’m fine, nothing is wrong at all’. You damn well knew something was wrong, it’s as clear as day, yet the words are disparate to the sensing. Same with disingenuous apologies. Notice how they are often given with a gruff ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again’, as the person huffs off across the office. The manipulative ‘sorry’ to immediately gain favour is also transparent. As is a gushing ‘I’m so sorry’ without actions to back it up.

There are five main elements of a genuine apology. Note that if number three (amends) is missing in action (literally), it’s a reasonable indicator the apology may be crocodile tears.

The delivery can be in person, over the phone or via email. An email is the least ideal as it really can be a weak way out. And rarely is number three ever included in written form. A caveat, of course, is to be mindful of the recipient and the situation and appreciate receipt from their shoes.  Be brave but respectful. 

1. Expression of regret

Say ‘I’m sorry’ in a heartfelt way, with meaningful and genuine remorse, and be motivated by an appreciation of the subsequent impact.

2. Admitting fault and taking responsibility 

Own up and take responsibility. Try and keep the excuses and extenuating circumstances to a bare minimum. Often, when there is a raft of excuses, it weakens the apology, as it may translate as narcissistic. And if there are valid commercial circumstances, offer an explanation, but keep it brief and relevant unless it is really a complex technical issue. Within this step, also sharing an appreciation of how the mistake impacted the other person is important. 

3. Ask how to make amends

Asking how you can make it right is the stamp of true remorse and emotional intelligence.

Amends may be in the form of actions, financial compensation, time support, referrals or something of value to the other person. Think of how you can help prior to the apology and give a few options for the party to consider if appropriate. This is where actions do speak louder than words.

4. Repentance

This repairs trust. Commit to being mindful and to not repeat.

5. Ask forgiveness

As mentioned above, this is an ideal outcome, but not in your control. But it helps bridge confidence for both parties to become a united part of ongoing solutions and relationships. 

Just a side here, forgiveness also has the power to move mountains, from both sides.

Apologising to yourself

As I mentioned earlier, we often stuff up in a situation where the only person who is impacted is us. We then beat ourselves up feeling pretty awful and guilty. So, in this situation, take the same steps above towards yourself. Sounds strange perhaps, but responsibility and doing the right thing, empathy and remorse starts with yourself.

Is there anyone you could apologise to and make amends with? It may be from a decade ago, a few years or months back. Or even from the last few days. Again in the words of Premier Daniel Andrews: “It’s never too late to put things right, it’s never too late to say sorry and mean it.”  And the benefits commercially and personally will be well worth it and may even move a mountain.

NOW READ: “Our actions define us”: Five things to avoid when responding to a crisis

NOW READ: There is no correlation between age and value, but ageism is always a sign of stupidity

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Sue Parker

Sue is the founder of DARE Group Australia, a personal branding, LinkedIn, marketing communications agency. Sue works with professional businesses and career executives, helping them to stand out and be seen as a go-to authority and trusted industry expert.

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